Relic (2020) Review

Not to be confused with the other Relic (that 1997 horror film about a monster terrorising the Chicago museum), Japanese-Australian filmmaker Natalie Erika James’ feature-length debut has been receiving glowing reviews ever since it had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. This, of course, got me curious to check out whether the movie is worth all the (near) universal praises so far.

But let’s get to the synopsis first. Relic revolves around Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), who we first saw them on the way to their grandmother (Robyn Nevin’s Edna) country home. They find out she has been missing and ends up reporting it to the local police.

Then, days later, Kay is surprised to see her grandmother resurfaces out of nowhere in the kitchen. Not only Edna is suffered from dementia but also starts to display odd behaviour. Then, there’s something wrong with the house. Is the place haunted? And what exactly happened to their grandmother?

Part of what made Relic such a well-praised horror film is Natalie Erika James’ unique take on the otherwise conventional haunted-house genre. I agreed it was something different after watching the entire movie. Let’s just say she doesn’t choose to play the genre strictly by the rules. With the exception of omitting the obligatory jumpscare moments, she still retains all the usual suspects: ominous score, eerie sound design, pitch-black darkness and dread-inducing imagery. While she does manage to pull off some of those horror elements admirably, the movie isn’t as terrifying or genuinely creepy as I expected it to be.

Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Edna (Robyn Nevin) in "Relic".

The story, in which Natalie Erika James co-wrote alongside Christian White, tries hard to bring something new to the table. By turning the haunted-house genre inside out, their screenplay imbues both figurative as well as metaphorical subtext and ideas related to ageing and dementia. On paper, it was no doubt an promising concept. However, I got a mixed feeling about the execution of this movie.

First, Natalie Erika James chooses to pace her movie deliberately as a slow-burn horror. And that’s okay, as long as the eventual payoff is worth all the wait. The first two acts can be a real test of patience for those who have short attention spans, with the movie constantly moving around the circles.

The ambiguous nature of the story also poses another problem here. As much as she wants her movie to be heavily packed with metaphors, it’s hard to justify these characters’ emotional struggles or whatever they have been through. Here, the movie prefers to keep things as minimal as possible. That means you’ll find little character backstories — a crucial foundation which actually helps to support the movie’s metaphor-heavy storytelling approach. With that element removed and only bits and pieces scattered around, all we have here is an atmospheric horror movie which only grows increasingly frustrating as it moves along.

Then came the third act, where the final 20 minutes happens to be the movie’s most unsettling moments. And yet, all the promises dwindled once it reaches to a debatable coda. It’s the type where you either find it intriguing or baffling. To me, it’s more of the latter. Again, the problem lies in its overall equivocalness of the movie.

Elsewhere, the acting from the three principal leads — Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote and Robyn Nevin — do their best with the material given. Their performances are all above-average. As mentioned earlier, Natalie Erika James does show some promises in the horror department but only to a certain extent. Overall, Relic is a half-baked effort with an interesting hook that doesn’t exactly fulfil its full potential.

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